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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1098-1105
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The Kenner Era:
Hugh at Eighty
In a culture where academic fashions change with the rapidity of hem-lines, the birthday of an elderly critic is seldom cause for extensive public notice let alone international celebration. But then Hugh Kenner, who was born eighty years ago this January in Peterborough, Canada, is hardly a representative specimen of "the academic critic." The ways in which he departs from the norm are almost as various as the range and intellectual longevity of his publications, which currently extend from his first book (Paradox in Chesterton) in 1947 to The Elsewhere Community on the cusp of the new millennium. Quite apart from his achievement as the premier cartographer of High Modernism in English, Kenner, "the indispensable guide to indispensable Guides" in Richard Stern's phrase, has given us books on matters as diverse as "geodesic math," the genius of Chuck Jones, Buster Keaton, Charles Babbage, and Buckminster Fuller, as well as the arts of satire and counterfeiting, the tradition of "the grand tour," and the history of the "mechanization" of society. But he also has the distinction of having pursued a vigorous academic career in this country without having ever attended a session of the Modern Language Association of America; of having taught in the United States, as a loyal Canadian, for half a century on a "green card"; and, before Al Gore invented the internet, of having built his own personal computers.
Granting that Hugh Kenner is an "original" of formidable proportions, how are we to comprehend the work of more than half a century? It would take the wit and daring of a Kenner to answer this question adequately and concisely. He has been called many things— [End Page 1098] elucidator, exegete, satirist, annotator, cultural map-maker, lexophile, scourge of the foolish, pretentious, and boring—but the title that perhaps fits best and still covers the subject is the same nomination that another writer of omnivorous curiosity, Borges, chose for himself: Reader. [End Page 1099]
Although Hugh Kenner is constitutionally impatient with literary theory and most theorists, he is a model of patience as a reader of texts. Nietzsche observed that the best thing to be said about philology is that it forces us to read more slowly. Kenner has repeatedly reminded us in startlingly original ways that we must read more attentively. Without his example, who would have recognized the importance of the placement of furniture in Ulysses, or how William Carlos Williams' metrical line actually works (despite what the poet himself often said on the topic), or the wit invested by Beckett [b. 1906] in translating himself from French to English, or, for that matter, how many words there are in his last work, Stirrings Still [1906 exactly]? Even Kenner's occasional "principles" are drawn from the scrupulous practice of careful reading, e.g. the "Uncle Charles Principle," which has the additional irony of a deaf critic teaching us how to listen to narrative tone.
The course of his reading has drawn him into many projects both large and small. He is, remarkably, the master of both "the big book" and the most minute and often neglected literary forms. The Pound Era obviously looms vast on the horizon, a very large and ambitious book (c. 2.75 pound avoirdupois), which in the beauty of its physical design and style seems much lighter in the reader's hands. His later take on modernism, the trilogy written from another perspective, is also another large work: A Homemade World, which in a mosaic considers those modernist poets and novelists who drew their strength from American themes; A Colder Eye, which follows the course of two unruly generations of Irish writers emerging from "the shadow of Yeats"; and, finally, in HK's trajectory eastward, A Sinking Island, which considers British modernism and its aftermath as London, the original center of international modernism, is displaced by what Kenner sees as a vast, tectonic shift westward (a displacement the two earlier books of the trilogy elucidate). And his individual studies of Joyce...